MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today, our show is all about time, which as they say, heals all wounds. But when we're talking about the environment, sometimes these wounds can take a really, really long time to go away, especially when we're dealing with certain types of pollution that were released into the environment decades ago and are still hanging around in our soil and water. Sabri Ben-Achour crisscrossed our region to get a sense of how these tenacious pollutants are effecting humans and animals alike.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
Standing under the 11th Street bridge in Southeast D.C., looking across the Anacostia, Steve Vermillion remembers the decade he spent rowing here in the late '90s and early 2000s.
MR. STEVE VERMILLION
We'd park our trailers and we had our boats stored there.
The boathouse is gone. It's now a construction site for a bridge widening project.
I was rowing out of this site, maybe 130, 140 times a year and then I was coming down to do landscaping and building projects and we'd smell -- especially after a rainstorm, you could smell diesel fuel in the air. I had a faint taste of it, like, on the back of my tongue. And, you know, I would wonder, what is that smell, you know? Where's that coming from?
There are pools of water that are jet black and strange odors are still noticeable in the breezes here.
I can smell it right now. I did. I just got a whiff right now. It smells to me like diesel fuel or oil.
Vermillion didn't know it when he was rowing and digging around in the dirt, but his boathouse was wedged between a super fun site at the Navy yard and the highly contaminated site of a former Washington gas plant. He didn't know that the ground water and sediments were contaminated with carcinogenic solvents, oils and pesticides, pcb's and dioxin's or that a plume of coal tar with several feet beneath the surface where he would dig. But he would find out after something prompted him to do a little research.
In November of 2008, I thought I had the flu. Within a couple days, I was at the emergency room at Georgetown University Hospital and I was vomiting blood. Turned out that I had leukemia, AML leukemia.
According to the National Institutes of Health, AML leukemia is associated with exposure to benzene, one of the compounds left over from that Washington gas plant, but it's also associated with a number of other things. And so Vermillion can never know what caused his illness. And it's important to note that the agency for toxic substances and diseases registry does not believe the Navy yard site is a public health risk because it's unlikely for people to come into contact with contaminants there.
The National Park Service concluded that levels of benzene and other compounds were below levels that could be expected to increase the public health risk of cancer. Washington Gas has removed several feet of soil from the area and continuously pumps ground water to reduce the migration of the coal tar plume. But the contamination at both sites is very much present and it is one of the reasons why D.C. urges people not to eat the fish here.
This whole area here is contaminated. It's under us right now. It's directly under us right now.
This type of pollution is called legacy contamination, waste put down long ago that is still with us. It's why 57 percent of lakes and estuaries in Virginia and Maryland don't meet water quality standards. It's why between D.C., Maryland and Virginia, there are around 2,200 miles of river and stream, 78,000 acres of lake and nearly 2,700 square miles of estuary that aren't fully suitable for fishing.
MR. BRYANT THOMAS
Polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs that have dachlorapoxide (sp?), sometimes some of the old pesticides that had been used may now be banned, DDT or Chlordane's.
Bryant Thomas is with Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality. Heptachlor is toxic to humans and was used to kill termites until it was banned in 1988. PCB's are carcinogenic. They were banned in 1979.
They don't break down easily over time. PCB's were not a pesticide or a herbicide, but they were real good insulator and you tended to see PCB's in a lot of electrical equipment in the oils that were there. These persistent contaminants that don't break down real easily, they've gotten into the environment.
When it comes to legacy contaminants, the levels can sometimes be low but the compounds accumulate and become more concentrated in the tissues of fish especially bottom feeders. That poses a risk for humans who might regularly eat fish from contaminated areas but also for the fish themselves. Vicki Blazer is with the U.S. Geological Survey. She says PCB's in particular, weaken their immune system.
MS. VICKI BLAZER
We've had fish killed in the Potomac, the James, the Susquehanna and when we look at those fish, what we see is a multitude of different pathogens and parasites which suggest immunosuppression.
Fred Pinkney with the Fish and Wildlife Service says PAH's, that's compounds and exhaust oil in coal tar that have long seeped into the water ways and continue to do so are strongly linked to cancer in bullhead catfish.
MR. FRED PINKNEY
In our last survey in 2000 and 2001, over 50 percent of the brown bullheads that we caught from the Anacostia had liver tumors and about 20 or 30 percent had skin tumors.
The contaminants in fish are not the whole story. Other ghosts of pollution passed are more mundane.
MR. RANDY CHAPMAN
You know, we've been using a while in petroleum products, you know, for decades.
Randy Chapman is senior geologist with Virginia's DEQ.
So in an area like Northern Virginia, the things that we run into, for example, are that old tank that no one knew about, that old gas station that was on the corner.
So do you, I mean, do you actually get calls from people who say, my well water tastes funny?
Every day. Every day we get a call like that.
At a gas station in Chillum, Md. in 1989, an old tank was found to be leaking.
MS. DIANE CARPENTER
Well, everyone in the neighborhood was calling people because you could smell it. You could smell it all through the neighborhood and then when it rains, it would leave a gasoline sheen on the street.
Diane Carpenter used to live just across the D.C. line in Riggs Park, Northeast.
My daughter was there and she (word?) with asthma problems. And eventually she had to have some major surgery.
It would be 11 years before residents were told that a 1,300 foot long plume of gas had crept unto their neighborhood. Carpenter says she moved her daughter out of the basement and Chevron and the EPA put in vapor mitigation systems in the house to keep fumes from accumulating. New laws regulating storage tanks have been put into place since then as well.
In cases such as Chillum, where there's a single source of a contamination, ground water can be pumped out, soil can be excavated or barriers can be installed. But in other cases when a legacy contaminant is really spread out, there's really not a lot you can do about it, says Bryant Thomas with Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality.
In some cases, they're rather ubiquitous in the environment. And so it's not something you would remediate. You just have to let nature do its course and in some cases, it's just natural attenuation or burial over time of sedimentation. And it could be decades, many, many decades before we would expect to see those issues kind of resolve themselves through that natural process so many of these contaminants are going to be with us for a long time.
And that long, long timeline is why it's so important to be mindful of the pollution of today. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.
If you have a story about legacy contamination in your community, we want to hear it. Just send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook, that's facebook.com/metroconnection.org.
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